Outlining the rules for debate (H. Res. 409) for the fiscal 2008 budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 21)/On ordering the previous question (to end debate and possibility of amendment)
house Roll Call 375 May 17, 2007
This was a crucial procedural vote on the fiscal 2008 budget resolution. The resolution outlined the rules for debate for the legislation, including how much floor time would be granted to each side and which amendments would be considered in order. The resolution is thus commonly known as the rules package.
Republicans opposed the rules package because of their opposition to the Democrat-drafted budget resolution generally, and also because they opposed how Democrats proposed to handle spending rules known as "pay as you go" (PAYGO).
To oppose ordering the previous question was a vote against the Democratic majority agenda and to allow the opposition to offer an alternative plan. Motions to order the previous question are about who controls the debate and represents one of the only tools available to those who oppose the majority's agenda.
This vote was a motion ordering the previous question, which is a parliamentary maneuver that effectively ends debate, prohibits amendment and moves the House to a vote for an up-or-down of the resolution under consideration. If the motion for the previous question is defeated, the House in effect turns control of the floor over to the lawmaker who led the opposition to the question at hand, usually a member of the minority party.
The budget resolution - the first to be authored by Democrats since 1995 - projected a deficit of $252 billion for fiscal 2008, which would gradually turn into a surplus of $41 billion by fiscal 2012. The budget resolution sets to accomplish that mostly through letting most of President Bush's signature tax cuts expire, while maintaining -- and even increasing -- spending in health care, education, veterans' programs and housing.
The budget resolution forms the blueprint for spending decisions for the next five years. It is passed by the House and Senate but is not signed by the president nor does it have the force of law. (That is why it is referred to as a resolution and not a bill.) Nonetheless, the ability of both chambers to agree on budget priorities is considered a prerequisite to responsible spending and good governance as it gives the 12 spending panels on the Appropriations Committee guidance and reflects consensus on how the multi-trillion dollar pie of federal spending should be sliced.
The $3 trillion measure included almost $1 trillion in what is known as discretionary spending (not including Social Security and Medicare, among other "non-discretionary" programs). (The total price tag total also included $143 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although most of the funding for those conflicts has thus far come in "emergency" appropriations not outlined in any budget plan.)
At this point in its legislative lifecycle, the budget resolution had already been passed by both chambers and then made it out of conference committee. If the two chambers pass differing versions of a measure, what's known as a conference committee is convened to hammer out the differences between the two resolutions and draft a consensus measure, which then must in turn be approved by both the House and Senate. This vote was on setting the rules for debate for the House's consideration of that conference committee report.
Democrats lauded the budget resolution as the first step towards turning around what they deemed were the fiscal improprieties of the first six years of Bush's presidency, most of which time the Republicans also controlled both chambers of Congress.
Republicans lambasted the plan as evidence of Democrats' fiscal irresponsibility and accused Democrats of a backdoor tax increase.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) wanted to offer an amendment to the rule, which would have, in his words, stopped the chamber "from hiding behind a cheap procedural maneuver." Sessions said the rules for debate allowed lawmakers to raise the limit on the amount of public debt the federal government could hold without a formal vote.
"This rule allows Members to duck the responsibility of taking a vote on raising a limit on a public debt, a painful but necessary exercise of this chamber's legislative responsibilities," Sessions said. "Because of this rule invented by Democrats, Members who vote for this underlying conference report will also be recorded as voting to raise the public debt. Members need to be aware of this. They need to know exactly what they are voting for."
Democrats countered that it was Republicans who were the fiscally irresponsible ones.
"This administration and these past Congresses took a $5.6 trillion surplus and turned it into a $9 trillion debt. This Democratic budget, in contrast, reaches balance by 2012, and strictly adheres to PAYGO rules," Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) said.
Motions to order the previous question are usually party-line votes, and the majority party almost always prevails. This time was no exception. All Republicans present voted against the measure and all Democrats present but one voted for it, so the motion passed 224-193, and the House moved to approve the rules for debate for the fiscal 2008 budget resolution, thus bringing the resolution to the floor. The measure included a provision to allow the House to raise the amount of public debt the federal government could hold without a separate vote.
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